Project Canterbury

A History of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament
in the United States of America

By William Pitt McCune

Published for the Confraternity by Holy Cross Publications, 1964.


DEVELOPMENTS in the years preceding Bishop Grafton's death had prepared the Confraternity in this country to bear the loss of its Founder and Superior, and are proof of his wisdom and care in providing for its future. In its organization a balance bad finally been established between East and West. The beginnings of a provincial system Furnished means for extending its work to parts of the country where hitherto it had had little or no influence. The tendency bad been to focus its activities in New York and Chicago. During the forty-five years of its existence in this country all the Annual Conferences had been held in these two cities, or in their vicinity. New Associates and new officers were needed to overcome these weaknesses, and to bring to the Confraternity the enthusiasm as well as the guidance necessary to carry on the Objects for which it existed.

One significant change in the officers had been made under Bishop Grafton. At first in this country the Treasurer-General was a layman. Five of these served during forty years. Then for the first time a Priest-Associate was elected to the office. This was the Rev. C. P. A. Burnett, who was already active as chairman of the committee on publications. During his six years as Treasurer-General he helped the Confraternity not only in its finances but in its policies. Father Burnett was a man of determination as well as convictions, and he saw to it that nothing should divert the resources of the Confraternity from the Objects to which it was pledged. "Inexpedient" is the term with which the Council was accustomed to dismiss such proposals, but Father Burnett had other and plainer words for them. Any study of the history of the Confraternity leads one to agree with him in his vehemence, and to admire his wisdom in opposing these schemes. One of them at this time was a Foundation (for even then there were Foundations, though fewer than now), in which the Confraternity was to play a part. Father Burnett thought it a part not appropriate for a devotional society, and succeeded in bringing the Council to agree with him and in keeping the Confraternity true to its purpose. This episode is the most vivid example in its history of the danger which has repeatedly threatened it, of forgetting that its work is first, last, and always a work of prayer.

In the story of these years another figure appears, even more important for the future of this work. That is the Rev. Reginald H. Weller. In 1893, when he was a priest in the diocese of Fond du Lac, he had been elected a member of the Council. Seven years later he became Coadjutor of Fond du Lac under Bishop Grafton. After that at several Conferences of the Confraternity he presided in the absence of the Superior-General. It was inevitable that when Bishop Grafton died Bishop Weller should be his successor in the Confraternity as in the diocese, and at the Conference in 1913 he was elected Superior-General. Like his predecessor he served the Confraternity in this office for twenty-two years.

It is interesting to note that at the Conference in 1893, when Bishop Weller was first made a member of the Council, he preached at one of the services. Preaching continued to be one of his lasting services to the Confraternity, as to the Church. During the rest of his life his sermons commended Catholic faith and practice not only to Associates who accepted them, but to Churchmen to whom they were new and strange. A preacher of Bishop Weller's eloquence and power meant much in the life and work of the Confraternity. He was in a very real sense a missionary for the cause which it had been founded to serve in the Church. His sermons convinced men of the truth of her teaching concerning the sacraments, and converted them to the fullness of her sacramental life.

As Superior-General he had able assistants, who were found to carry on with him the work of the Confraternity. The year after his election the Rev. E. B. Taylor resigned as Secretary-General. The burden of the office he found too great, and well he might, for he had borne it twenty long years, during which he had served the Church in parishes both in the East and in the West. It was not easy to find a successor for one so faithful in an office so vital to the organization. The Conference in 1914 solved the problem by shifting Father Burnett from the treasury to the secretariat. He was as valuable in the one office as in the other, and for about the same length of time. Meanwhile, as Treasurer-General, he had five successors in ten years. Finally a priest was found who not only would do the work, but could do it, and do it well. This was the Rev. W. A. Grier, of the Church of St. Edward the Martyr, New York, who during the last twelve years of Bishop Weller's term as Superior-General served him and the Confraternity as Treasurer-General. The Bishop finally had the same good fortune in his Secretary-General. The history of the two offices under him follows the same pattern. Father Burnett had four successors in the nine years following his resignation in 1922. Then, in 1931, there came to the Confraternity, and to Bishop Weller, that greatest and best of secretaries, Father Mitcham. Born in England, he had been educated and ordained in this country, and for many years had been at St. James' Church, Hackettstown, New Jersey. Now for many more years he was to be as dedicated to his work for the Confrater4itv as he had been to his care for his parish. With a reliable treasurer, Bishop Weller now had an able secretary, and also one more assistant. In 1925, when it was found necessary to have a fourth officer, Father Stoskopf, of the Church of the Ascension, Chicago, had been made Vice-Superior. Priests like these brought stability to the Confraternity, and must have been invaluable to Bishop Weller during his long years of service.

Doubtless they did their share, but certainly he did his. The beginning of his administration was marked by several reforms, made necessary by difficulties encountered in the management of the Confraternity's affairs. These were made, not without further difficulties echoed in the records of his early years in office. Much discussion and many committees finally brought forth revision of both Constitution and Charter, and a new edition of the Manual. More interesting now, and mote significant in the history of the Confraternity, was a new system of Provinces, to correspond with the eight Provinces of the Church. In 1915 eight Superiors of Provinces were appointed by Bishop Weller, to assist him in supervising the work of the Confraternity and extending it throughout the Church.This process of extension soon became evident in the Annual Conferences, always the center of the Confraternity's outer activities, as contrasted with its inner life of prayer. Until 1913 these had been held either in New York or in Chicago. There were occasional meetings in Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Hoboken, but this was as far afield as the organization had ventured for its Conferences. This might be expected, since its strength in these earlier years, like the strength of the Catholic revival, had been centered in and near New York and Chicago. The same had been true in England, where the devotional societies had met first in London, and then later in other cities. Under Bishop Weller the American branch of the Confraternity followed the same course. The first new name on the list was Philadelphia. It was there, at St. Clement's Church, that he was elected Superior-General in 1913, and under him there were seven Annual Conferences in Philadelphia, at St. Clement's, St. Mark's, and St. Alban's. Then came visits to New England, with Conferences at the Advent, Boston, St. Stephen's, Providence, and Trinity, Bridgeport. Twice the Confraternity met at Grace Church, Newark, and in 1933 went to Milwaukee, for the first of four Conferences to be held there, at All Saints' Cathedral. Meanwhile, during these years, there were seven meetings in Chicago, but only one in New York. Wherever the Confraternity met, Bishop Weller was there. Difficulty in travel during the war kept him away once, and once after the war he was traveling himself, on his way to Lambeth. But at all the other meetings, except a very few in his latter years, he was present, to preside over the Council and Conference, and to direct the plans and lead the work of the Confraternity. He often celebrated the Mass or preached the sermon, in addition to making an address at the Conference.

The year 1917 was the fiftieth anniversary of the American branch of the Confraternity. It was also the year of this country's entering into the first world war. The observance of the anniversary was postponed until 1918, and set for May 30, at St. Mary's, New York. This was the feast of Corpus Christi, and also Memorial Day, appointed this year by President Wilson as a day of fasting and prayer in time of war. The Litany was sung in Procession before the Festal Mass. The preacher was Father Vernon, of St. Mark's, Philadelphia. In the evening there was a meeting in the parish hall, with addresses by Dr. Ralph Adams Cram, of Boston, and Professor Chauncey Brewster Tinker, of New Haven. The day ended in the church, with devotions before the Blessed Sacrament. The record of the Conference tells of the beauty of the services and the devotion of the people, and there are older Associates who still remember the anniversary as a notable day, in the history of the Confraternity as in that of this country.

In the long intervals between Conferences the life of the Confraternity continued, first and always in the prayers of the Associates, and then in the work of its officers. These last were concerned with certain questions which plagued the Confraternity under Bishop Weller as under his predecessors. The new Secretary soon noted the fact that although each year brought many new members the total remained about the same. This problem of gain and loss, he pointed out, was not only statistical, but personal and pastoral. He urged Priests-Associate, and especially Superiors of Wards, to exercise care in admitting Associates. Membership all too often was taken lightly, and some admitted without the required qualifications of devotional fitness and stability. "In all its essentials," he said in reporting to the Associates, "the Confraternity of the Blessed Body and Blood of Christ still retains the form and character which, by the holy wisdom of its saintly founder, the Rev. Canon Carter, were impressed upon it at its outset.... Its objects are of the highest kind; its rules are simple and in accordance with the best Christian traditions; and the need which called the Society into existence is still exceedingly great." These words are as true now that the Society is one hundred years old as they were then when it was only fifty.

One change in the rules for membership was inaugurated early in Bishop Weller's term of office, with happy results. In 1915 it was voted that "any Associate, upon the payment of $15, shall be exempt from the annual due." Later, in 1954, the payment was increased to $25. As years passed these life memberships increased in number, slowly but steadily. The income from them served to carry the Confraternity through several of the financial crises which beset its career. To this fund were added bequests received from time to time, amounting now to a modest but comfortable endowment.

Other administrative details recur in the history of these years, and in the records of annual meetings. These, like most meetings, were always in danger of becoming too long, and periodic efforts were made to abbreviate and simplify them. This was difficult because, to carry on the work of the organization, it was necessary for the Council to meet before each Conference. There is no need to chronicle the remedies urged and tried to cue this complaint. They are part of the imperfect, and all too human, nature of all such organizations, even devotional societies in the Church. The strength of the Confraternity, and its wisdom down through the years, has been to keep central in its programs and meetings the Eucharistic worship of the Church. Associates come to the Annual Conferences for one great purpose, to assist at the Mass of Corpus Christi, and so to work for the first Object of the Confraternity: The Honor due to the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

As part of this work Bishop Weller and his assistants tried to encourage and extend these services, with or without meetings, throughout the Church. The Provincial Superiors were urged to provide a corporate observance of Corpus Christi in each Province. The Bishop lived to see this object attained. An attempt was made to appoint Diocesan Superiors. Not much came of this plan, but there was a steady growth in the number of dioceses and parishes in which Mass was offered on Corpus Christi. To help these services under local auspices the Provincial Meetings, like the Annual Conferences, were sometimes held on or within the Octave, rather than on the feast itself.

Another step in commending the Confraternity to the Church, or at least calling the Church's attention to its existence, was taken in 1922, when a committee was appointed to plan for a service at Portland, Oregon, during the sessions of General Convention there. Since then the Confraternity has held many such services, and now hastaken its place among organizations represented at General Conventions.

There were other works, not new in its history but vital to its continued influence, which were carried on faithfully during these years. From the beginning, in this country as in England, the Confraternity had stood for Catholic faith as well as Catholic practice concerning the Blessed Sacrament. As part of its work of instruction it helped in the publication of books on ritual and ceremonial by Bishop Weller, Father Burnett, Father Mitcham, and Father Douglas, but a greater part of this work consisted in making known books on Eucharistic doctrine by Bishop Weller, Bishop Webb, Dr. Barry, and Dr. F. J. Hall. Chapters of the volume on the Sacraments by that great theologian, Dr. Hall, were read before publication at a meeting of the Confraternity in 1921.

Through all its history the Confraternity in this country has done all in its power to help its Associates, and all priests and people in the Church working for the restoration of Catholic worship. It has done this chiefly through gifts of vestments and vessels to parishes and missions in need of them. The record of these grants is proof of the wideness of the Confraternity's sympathy and generosity. The list includes not only all parts of this country, but Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Liberia, the Philippines, Japan, and China. This good work, like many others, suffered after 1929 from the depression. Many priests, thirty or forty each year, applied for assistance, only to be told that there were no funds to help them. The same dearth became evident elsewhere in the finances of the Confraternity. In 1934, for the first time in its history, there was a deficit in current expenses. These were no greater than in former years, but receipts, in dues and offerings, were less. The only increase was in life memberships, but the Superior, like the Treasurer, was prudent, and kept these intact, for investment and endowment.

Things like these, seen from afar and after thirty years, may seem trivial, but they must have increased the burden laid upon the Bishop at the end of his life. They did not decrease, however, his zeal for the Confraternity, or his care for it, as for his diocese and the Church. He had always been eager to keep the American branch in touch with the Confraternity in England. In 1930, when he went to Lambeth, he was with the English Confraternity for its Conference, and received a message from the Conference here, sending their love and best wishes for a successful meeting of the English branch. As the Centenary of the Oxford movement drew near he was active in planning for its observance, and in having the Confraternity's part in the movement remembered. This was done during the Catholic Congress in Philadelphia in 1933, when Father McComas, of Trinity Perish, New York, preached a sermon at St. Mark's Church on the Confraternity's contribution to the revival of the Catholic life in the American Church. In the same year, when the Confraternity held its Conference in Milwaukee, at All Saints' Cathedral, Bishop Weller himself preached on the Centenary of the Oxford movement. At this meeting a message was sent to the Secretary-General of the English Confraternity, asking that through him the fraternal greetings of the American branch be extended to the Oxford Centenary meeting in July. In this, as in all his labors for the Confraternity, Bishop Weller proved himself not only a leader but a statesman, with a world-wide vision of the Confraternity and the Anglican communion.

Appreciation of this was made evident after his death, in 1935. When a memorial for him was proposed, in the Cathedral at Fond du Lac, an offering was received from the English Confraternity. The Confraternity's memorial to him in this country was the Annual Mass of Requiem, offered at a meeting of the Council in February, 1936, at St. Ignatius' Church, New York. The Superior of the Canadian Confraternity, the Bishop of Algoma, was present. The Bishop of Milwaukee delivered a eulogy. The Council, in a resolution adopted at this meeting, declared: "Bishop Weller was first a man of God, a champion of the Catholic Faith and its recovery in all its fullness and glory in the Anglican Communion; his manner of life a pattern for all to follow, a tender shepherd and ruler in his own diocese, his spiritual vision and personal magnetism made him an influence throughout the American Church and overseas. For all he has meant in the conduct of the affairs of the Confraternity we are, as a Council most appreciative and will pray always that his dear soul may grow in the rest and peace which cometh to the 'good and faithful servant.' Behold a great priest who in his days pleased the Lord.'"

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